RALEIGH, N.C. – First, thousands protest in Arizona and Colorado.
Now, through pouring rain and scorching heat, crowds of students and teachers — more than 30,000, according to one estimate — marched to North Carolina’s state capital in Raleigh for the “March for Students and Rally for Respect,” fighting what they’ve called unfair pay and inadequate learning environments in schools across the state.
“You never retire, and you’re always caring,” said Judy Justice, a retired teacher. “Look at these thousands of people. It’s hot out here, and a lot of us aren’t young and this isn’t easy. Some of us have been here since eight this morning.”
She says they are all doing it for the kids.
“It started in 2010 when they started cutting teacher aides, and then they have cut supplies,” Justice said. “We haven’t had books since 2010-2011. Kids are suffering. Teachers have to send out supply lists every year so kids can have Kleenex and things like paper towels by the end of the year.”
“For us it is personal. Together we say enough is enough,” said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).
City Commissioner Del Mims walked among the sea of red T-shirts carrying a sign saying, “Teachers, Students, Schools.” She says she attended the march today to support teachers.
“We want teachers to be well-paid, and most importantly, we want our students to have the freedom to learn in the proper environment,” Mims said.
In a Tuesday press conference, lawmakers said the average teacher pay will grow to $53,000, not including local supplements or bonuses, an increase from the current average salary of $49,000, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.
“We are doing something important, we are not raising taxes to do this,” said Speaker of the House Tim Moore.
Republican legislators say state House and Senate budget leaders officially have committed to at least a 6.2 percent increase in teachers’ salaries in the coming fiscal year.
“This commitment marks the fifth year that we have increased teacher pay,” Moore said. “Teachers will have received an average pay raise of $8,600.”
Moore says more than 40,000 of the state’s teachers and nearly half of all public school teachers will have received at least a $10,000 pay raise on an annual basis.
“Last year we were the number one state in the country for increasing teacher pay,” he said.
But according to NEA, the national average starting teacher salary is $38,617.
“Thirty-seventh in the country for teacher pay is unacceptable,” Governor Roy Cooper said to the roaring crowd as they chanted, “Teachers united, we’ll never be divided.”
“We know this is more than about teacher pay. It’s about respect. It’s personal,” Cooper said.
“There became this kind of climate where folks really felt like teachers are being disrespected, schools are being disrespected,” said Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education at North Carolina State University. “And that kind of came on the heels of the recession, and if you follow what happened in North Carolina, we were hit pretty hard by the recession.”
A majority of states across the country cut school funding after the recession of 2008 hit. It took many years for states to restore their funding.
He says if coupled with what has happened more recently, in terms of more money being available, those raises disproportionately have been pushed toward beginning teachers.
“I think what has happened to some degree is you have veteran teachers really feeling disrespected over what has happened in 2013 to today,” Maher said.
While many teachers argue they are advocates for equal pay for both veteran as well as new teachers, their focus is not specifically on pay raises.
They have a list of issues they would like addressed ranging from support for public education to provisions of adequate school supplies for students.
All of the 2016-17 state expenditures for public schools were attributed to salaries and benefits except for nearly six percent, according to the February public school budget from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Highlights.
Many teachers argued lawmakers should be investing in digital learning, counseling for students and better infrastructure, among other issues.
“We do fund textbooks … it’s not only textbooks now, but we are moving to a lot of digital-based learning,” Moore said. “You are seeing more money being spent on digital as opposed to the traditional textbooks.”
“Remember we haven’t started the session yet, so what the budget is going to look like will materialize as we move forward,” said State Senator Phil Berger.
Moore says he appreciates what state employees are doing and expects they will get some kind of a raise, “but I’ll have to come back on a later date to get the numbers on that.”
Both legislators say they already have made progress during the beginning of the session by making agreements on taxes and pay raises, but say there are still things that need to be worked on.